Serbia blocks inquiry into Kosovo atrocities

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SERBIA YESTERDAY blocked the chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunal from investigating alleged Serbian atrocities in its southern Kosovo province.

Louise Arbour had planned to go to Belgrade today and then head south to Kosovo. Her mission was to find the truth about the claims made by Kosovo's Albanian majority that Serb police and troops have been slaughtering civilians as well as driving hundreds of thousands from their homes, in their eight-month campaign to crush the province's separatist uprising.

The claims, some supported by Western journalists' eye-witness reports, include summary executions, wanton destruction and plunder.

Belgrade has repeatedly denounced the Albanian claims as fabrications and invited the international community, in particular the UN, to investigate them.

Yesterday Belgrade appeared to have changed its mind, or decided that Ms Arbour was not the kind of investigator it wanted.

In the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, Ms Arbour has earned a reputation for plain speaking, infuriating France, for example, by criticising the failure of French troops to arrest any of the 80 indicted war crime suspects believed to be living in the zone of Bosnia the French patrol as part of an international peace-keeping force.

The American president of the tribunal, Kirk McDonald, said: "This conduct is a further example of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's utter disregard for the norms of the international community."

Yugoslavia consists of Serbia and the tiny neighbouring republic of Montenegro. "Essentially, it has become a rogue state, one that holds the international rule of law in contempt," Ms McDonald added.

Ms Arbour had planned to take a team with her, including the deputy prosecutor, Graham Blewitt, and 10 investigators. She vowed to continue investigating "using all means available to us", but did not elaborate.

Ms McDonald said she would be reporting Serbia's action to the UN Security Council. The move can have come only from the highest authority, meaning the President, Slobodan Milosevic.

The Yugoslav Justice Minister, Zoran Knezevic, said last week that the court in The Hague had no jurisdiction over Kosovo, in spite of last month's deal between Belgrade and the West, providing for 2,000 international observers to be stationed there. The first 46 observers, under the control of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, are expected to arrive in Kosovo next week.

France repeated its intention yesterday to provide the backbone of a military task force entrusted with flying the unarmed observers in Kosovo to safety, if their mission becomes caught up with a renewed burst of fighting between the Serbian military and the rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The 1,500 strong so-called "extraction force" will be based in Macedonia, Serbia's southern neighbour. It is unclear who would decide to send the force into Kosovo but the aim is for it to be ready to respond "within minutes" with helicopters and vehicles if there is trouble.